BTS: Air Force One Arrival and 2012 Campaign Wrap-Up

Wednesday, February 12, 2014
[NOTE: this is a long-delayed follow-up for the last Obama event I covered back in October 2012 and a "capstone" for my political reporting for that most recently completed presidential election cycle. Because of the 16-month gap, I am relying upon emails and photos to help dredge up the more intangible recollections of my experiences.]

Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama speaking to a crowd at Dayton, Ohio's Triangle Park at a joint rally on October 23, 2012. (photo courtesy of the Associated Press)

Dayton was extremely fortunate to have both major party tickets bring their nominees to the "Gem City" for joint appearances in the later stages of the general election campaign.  I took an unfortunate pass on the Romney/Ryan dual event at the Dayton International Airport in late September.  That same month, I did cover a Biden rally right down the road from me at Wright State University and an Obama "grassroots event" held in Cincinnati's Eden Park but I was surprised when I received an email on October 19th from the Obama 2012 campaign about a joint appearance at the city's historic Triangle Park on the following Tuesday.  Other than at the national convention in Charlotte, neither candidate had appeared at the same venue at the same time so this was a ready indicator of the importance of Ohio to their reelection chances.

Overview of Dayton's James M. Cox International Airport (graphic courtesy of Google Earth)

I immediately RSVP'd the press POC and received credentialing confirmation on the 22nd--an excruciating three-day wait.  However, during that span of time, I began to think about an alternate assignment for that day.  Back in March, I tried to attend the arrival of Air Force One over at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as a member of the media but my request was politely declined by the White House Press Office.  Despite that initial setback, I improvised for that event from an extended distance (my camera's extreme telephoto lens came in very handy) but I still wanted a shot at covering an arrival on the immediate tarmac instead of a mile away.  Not knowing where the presidential transport would be landing, I contacted the base's Public Affairs office to ask them if they had received any guidance from the campaign.  Since it was so late in the planning stages and they hadn't heard anything about it, we came to the conclusion it would be at the local airport and the campaign did confirm that shortly after I received their email.  The time of the rally (scheduled to start at 3:50PM but such events are known to start later than advertised) posed a problem for me in terms of my work hours (at the time, I was a second-shift employee) so I asked the question about swapping my location and waited for an answer.  I was elated when I had a White House Press Office confirmation forwarded by the Dayton rally coordinator and I began planning for my opportunity.

Air Force One (SAM 29000 for that trip) was scheduled to arrive at approximately 2:30PM and depart at 5:05PM so there were a just a few hours of ground time allocated to this campaign stop.  My "show time" was restricted to between 12:30 and 12:45PM so I made sure that I was at the Wright Brothers Aero with plenty of time to spare.  While waiting for the security sweep, I had the chance to talk with several members of the campaign staff and security detail to get a feel for what I might expect to see.  Since most of the attention would be focused at the Triangle Park setting, there were just a handful of pre-credential media at the airport to cover the arrival.  The announcement stated that anyone desiring to cover the president's departure had to remain in the secure area for the duration so there was no possibility of  leaving and returning.  I would later find out that Lisa Powell, a photographer for The Dayton Daily News, was allowed to travel with the motorcade to the event and then return for the departure (and she got a great shot of the plane taking off).  I couldn't fixate on what I wasn't able to do and instead started to get myself ready for the plane's arrival.

After the security check-in, we were lead through a passenger terminal out to the tarmac.  It was a rather warm day out (the high temperature reached 76 degrees--the average for that date is just 61) but the breezy conditions kept it a little cooler in the area where we would be positioned for the next two hours.  The media area was a mobile flattop trailer that was positioned in front of a storage building and surrounded with portable barricades for additional security.  Without seats (the stairs between the ground and the trailer would serve as a place to take a quick sit for a few minutes), the handful of print and television personnel began the wait.  It wasn't like we couldn't use the bathroom or get something to drink but any movement outside of that restricted space required a Secret Service escort back into to the terminal area.  The same rules applied to the special guests who were in a similar holding area about 30 feet away from us (they are pictured in the photo attached to the "tweet" below).  Another group of guests that I dubbed "the greeting committee" stayed inside the terminal until just before Air Force One's arrival .

While I was there primarily for photography and video, other journalists wanted to get comments from the assembled crowd.  Jeremy P. Kelley, a reporter for The Dayton Daily News, made his way over to that grouping to interview a few of the attendees (he was shadowed by a Secret Service agent for his entire session).  Mr. Kelley was also included in the presidential press team that traveled down to Triangle Park for the joint campaign event with Vice President Biden.

The Dayton Daily News' Jeremy P. Kelley, second from right, interviews guests assembled for President Obama's arrival on Air Force One.

At around 2:20PM, we got an informal clue about the imminent arrival of Air Force One when the gangway trucks that would wheel up alongside the plane started up their engines. 

It was right around that time that another media member noticed a large plane moving in a northward direction to the east of the airport and I quickly snapped the photo that was featured in my original posting.  The VC-25 transport was being vectored to land on the nearly 11,000 foot long Runway 24R, just to the north of the Wright Brothers Aero area at approximately 2:30PM.  It seemed like an awfully long time lapsed for the modified 747 to turn itself around and taxi its way over to the transient parking area and, at approximately 2:38PM, the plane did arrive at the designated spot.

WKEF/ABC 22 has a video clip of the entire 12-minute event on its website (you can see it here--I wasn't unable to embed it) but I can go through the choreographed activities behind the arrival of the leader of the free world.  As an observer, you are first taken aback by the sheer size of the plane.  While no longer the world's biggest passenger aircraft, the Boeing 747's 200B variant--coming in at over 230 feet long, six stories high, and has a wingspan of almost 200 feet--is still an impressive mode of transportation.  Because of my distance away from the plane for that March 2012 visit, I did not get that same perspective as I did at this location.  While not at full power, the overwhelming sound emanating from its four turbofan engines during taxiing was physically felt throughout your body and reflected off of the surrounding storage structures.  The almost regal livery scheme harkens one back to the 1960s' "jet set" JFK days or to Henry Kissinger's "shuttle diplomacy" efforts to bring about a mutually acceptable resolution to the Vietnam War in the early 1970s.
A close-up of Air Force One's sky-blue/light-blue livery and presidential seal. 

Even before the plane stopped, Secret Service agents took their posts around the aircraft to begin their ground security operations.  Recognizable by their dark suits, polarized sunglasses and earpieces, it is their responsibility to protect the president at all costs, to include sacrificing their own lives to save their boss' life.  Only one of the two gangway trucks made their way up to the aircraft and it positioned its platform and stairs right in front of the forward portside passenger door (Door 2).  An Air Force steward is tasked to open that door and to ensure that all outer preparations are completed prior to the president's exit.  At approximately 6 foot, 1 inch in height, President Obama can barely walk out of the plane without having to duck his head to avoid bumping it into the door frame.  Most of the other passengers, to include the press, departed the aircraft via the aft stairway and it was at that disembarkation that Kelley and Powell joined up with the traveling "gaggle" on their way to the downtown campaign rally.

Traveling press members disembark from Air Force One via the aft stairway.  The Dayton Daily News' Lisa Powell and Jeremy P. Kelley are waiting in the foreground to join that group. (screen capture courtesy of WKEF)

Once he made his way down the stairs, President Obama was introduced to that "greeting committee", a group of local dignitaries and campaign volunteers selected to meet the president plane-side (I wish I could provide more information but I am not able to locate a listing of their names in my records or through online searches).  Once he met and spoke with each person, the president had them move closer to the plane for a group photo to commemorate that occasion.

Chief Official White House photographer Peter Souza, right, snaps a picture of President Obama mingling with guests at the Dayton James M. Cox International Airport.

After that portion was completed, President Obama began walking towards a waiting limousine but took a deliberate turn in the direction of the cordoned-off grouping next to the press area.  Flanked by Secret Service agents and nationally accredited media, the president chatted with several individuals and posed for photographs with the attendees.  One of the people that I did recognize was Peter Souza, the Chief White House photographer, who was also taking pictures to document the visit.  After a few minutes of this interaction, the president was led away to his car in order to make the short drive down Interstate 75 to the Dayton campaign venue.

Air Force One sits in the transient parking area awaiting the return of President Obama from the Dayton, Ohio campaign rally with Vice President Biden.

One of the questions that I had concerning this rally was the whereabouts of the vice president.  Prior to the Dayton event, Vice President Biden was scheduled to speak at a campaign rally at the University of Toledo at approximately 11AM.  Depending upon when he finished up, it was entirely possible that his motorcade could make the approximately 150-mile trip (mostly along a rural interstate route) with plenty of time to spare for the 3:50PM start time.  President Obama had flown in from an event held 950 miles away in Delray Beach, Florida that ended at approximately 11:30 that morning.  It wasn't until those of us not staying for the departure began to leave that we were informed that Air Force Two's arrival was imminent.  Once his plane landed, it was parked in an area away from the presidential aircraft and there was no press coverage of Biden's transition to an awaiting motorcade for his continuation down to Triangle Park.  Law enforcement officials had already blocked off traffic for Obama's entourage and they were not allowing it to start back up until the second group had left the airport area (that is when I sent the "tweet" below):

My wife and son attended the Dayton rally and they were impressed with the size and enthusiasm of the crowd (estimated to be between 9,000 to 10,000 people).  It was a first for both of them and they could honestly say that they witnessed an historic occasion.  That event was the only joint appearance for Obama and Biden during the entire campaign, and such ham-handed scheduling was just another overt indicator of Ohio's political importance in our nation's general election strategy--something that I already knew since the early days of the Republican primaries in late 2011.

A photo collection of my 2012 presidential campaign coverage.

As I look back upon that nearly year-long period, I can honestly say that I attempted to cover the 2012 campaign in an impartial manner (my recent attempts at "opining" provide obvious glimpses into my own political ideology and beliefs).  While I did attend a few Democratic rallies in 2008, I chose not to do the same for Republican ones, even one with the party's eventual 2008 nominee at a location just a few miles down the road from where I live.  I decided to get out of my "comfort zone" and deliberately rubbed shoulders with supporters at Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney rallies to get a first-hand exposure to their hopes, needs and wants in a political candidate without the "spin" of cable news or talk radio.  Once the GOP decided upon a standard bearer, I then started my coverage on the Democrat's side which proved a little difficult at the beginning but ended up great due to some persistent face-to-face and email networking with campaign press representatives.  External communication was undoubtedly the major difference between the general election candidates and I never received formal credentialing from the Romney campaign.  The only time I came close to it was for the hurriedly planned Sandy relief rally in Kettering in late October when they wrote my name down on a listing and handed me a generic press badge to go inside the media area (although I also had the same press-only privilege for his March rally in Beavercreek).

 A "sign" of things to come? (cartoon courtesy of Bob Rogers and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

I am not sure what I'll be doing in late 2015 and in 2016 but, whatever that is, I hope that I can repeat the experience I had back in 2011 and 2012.  While there is only one serious candidate being currently mentioned on the Democratic side, that doesn't mean that there won't be a primary challenger to Mrs. Clinton or a guarantee that she will even run.  The Republican side is a lot more chaotic right now due to the rapidly expanding political problems encircling New Jersey governor Chris Christie.  Once thought to be the odds-on favorite to take the nomination, he might be lucky just to hang on to his own governorship (and to stay out of prison).  With his gubernatorial reelection momentum halted, we could see a senator (Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rob Portman), a governor (Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, John Kasich) or even a former candidate (yes, Mitt Romney is being discussed for a third go-round) placed in the position of running against the former first lady, US senator and secretary of state (or the incumbent vice president).  One lesson I did learn from that last presidential election cycle is that you have to be either extremely certain  or extremely foolish to start prognosticating about final results at such an early stage in the process.  Since I don't want to show off how much I do not know, the earliest that I'll be making my educated guess will be January 1st of that election year.

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